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Thursday, June 27, 2024

What Do ‘Good Schools’ Look Like? It Depends on What Parents Want

Good schools come in many shapes and sizes.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I often hear people in the education world, especially those who are more rooted in traditional schooling models, express concern about the “quality” and “outcomes” of the innovative schools and spaces now emerging. “How do we know these are ‘good’ schools with high academic achievement and strong outcomes for students?” they’ll ask.

My response is always some version of this: “We” don’t have to know. It’s the parents who decide whether or not their children’s schools are “good”—however they define that.

For some parents, a “good” school might be a forest school where their children are outside all day stomping in the mud. For other parents, a “good” school might follow Common Core curriculum standards to a tee, with regular standardized testing.

We all have diverse preferences, values, and needs. What one family considers to be “good” education, another may consider to be “bad.” Fortunately, as education becomes increasingly decentralized and entrepreneur-driven, families are able to make personal choices about their children’s education without imposing their views and values on others.

Earlier this week, I thought more about this tension between those who believe they know what a “good” school really is and desire to make policy around that, and those who think families should be free to choose the education option that’s right for them. My rumination was prompted by a recent Substack article published by Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, called “The Toxic Consequences of Attending a High Achieving School.”

Gray describes the research showing that students who attend a high-achieving high school—public or private—may indeed get admitted into top colleges but at a steep cost to their mental health and emotional well-being. “Students at high achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools,” he writes.

The educationalists I talk to who think they know what constitutes a “good” school would undoubtedly believe that these high-achieving high schools are the cream of the crop. They are the top bar for academic excellence. Just look at their rigorous curriculum and their students’ test scores and college admissions rates!

Yet, also look at the potential harms of their “good” schools.

Let me reiterate my point: It’s up to parents to decide what is a “good” school. For some of them, that “good” school will be one of the high-achieving high schools that Gray writes about. For others, that would be considered a “bad” school.

Parents should be free to make these educational choices, based on their own preferences and not because some education policymakers somewhere think they know what makes a “good” school.

As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman reminds us in Capitalism and Freedom: “Humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom; arrogance, of the paternalist.”

This article originally appeared in the LiberatED email newsletter.